The Mets start a four-game series tonight at Citi Field against the Cardinals, so to get an idea of what's going on in St. Louis this season I checked in with Dan Moore at SB Nation Cardinals site Viva El Birdos. I answered some questions for Dan as well, which you can read here.
Talk to me about Joel Piniero: he's not striking anyone out, but neither is he walking anybody nor giving up any homeruns. Is he doing something differently this year, or, if not, which of these can we expect to change between now and September?
Every pitcher who joins the Cardinals is, until proven otherwise, assumed to have developed a sinker and an aversion to strikeouts as soon as he comes into physical contact with Dave Duncan. For Joel that lazy sportswriter tic has proved truer than usual--from his first start with the Cardinals he's pitched to contact in the grand Duncan tradition.
The difference between this year and the last two, now that he's started to strike people out—in the early going he was striking out two batters per nine innings—is that he's stopped allowing home runs altogether, after giving them up at Sam's Club volumes over his first season and a half.
The strike-zone religion is real, but the home run stinginess is an illusion. If he can keep from snapping all the way back to 08 and 09 in that regard, he'll be a fine back-end starter.
Albert Pujols seems to be having one of his best seasons at the plate this year, though a closer look shows that his line drive rate and BABIP are the lowest of his career, while his overall flyball rate and his HR/FB are the highest of his career (his intentional walk rate is also the highest of his career). Has his swing been any different this year than in years past? Is there anything else you've noticed?
Since, say, 2006 there's been a run on the same conventional wisdom once or twice every year—he'll get intentionally walked a few times in a row while he's in the midst of a slump, and the two will be conflated, and all of a sudden he is pressing because he's not confident in the offense around him or otherwise frustrated.
Is there any truth to it? I try to avoid inferring psychological stuff from performance as much as possible, but Pujols isn't a "natural" walker like Adam Dunn or Jack Cust—it's not a part of his game plan—so it's probably fair to imagine that he doesn't appreciate being pitched around. But for me, he's looked as Pujols-ian as ever, and until it's carried over a full season I'm inclined to think of the depressed LD% and increased home run rate as noise, rather than a change in approach.
Will the real Ryan Ludwick please stand up? His line drive rate has fallen from 28.1% last year to 17.9% this year (his traditional rate stats have fallen off precipitously from 2008). Is this just a nasty case of regression to the mean, or is something else going on? What can we expect from him the rest of the way?
The way in which the Cardinals have struggled on offense this year—at least, prior to this last series—has been particularly frustrating because it's come from the two spots, outfield and third base, that we fans had just months ago been conspiring to trade from. Depth, no matter how perfectly planned, has a way of vanishing instantly when it's needed.
Ludwick started off even hotter than he was last year, and was in the middle of a pretty serious slump when he tweaked his hamstring and spent almost exactly fifteen days on the DL. He came back in the middle of the Cardinals' own slump to end all slumps, and did even worse. He's shown some signs of life in the last few days, just like the rest of the offense, and with Ankiel and Duncan doing no better the Cardinals won't give up on him any time soon.
He's not a .600 slugger, but he's at least a true-talent .850 OPS guy.
Colby Rasmus has arrived, and has acquitted himself quite well so far. What are you most impressed with, and in what areas do you expect to see significant improvement?
As a fan, Colby Rasmus is just an exhilarating player to watch. To use the scout cliche, the ball makes the Good Sound off his bat, whether it's aimed out of the park or right back over the mound. His offense has been a little spotty at times—he didn't hit for any power to start the season, and now that he's white hot he's stopped drawing walks altogether—but Cardinals fans have been particularly enchanted with his defense; his UZR/150 at this moment is 30.1, and he's the kind of outfielder that looks like he's that good, too.
He's not in the same class, and he probably won't be, but the breadth of his talent, and the smooth way in which he deploys it, reminds me a lot of Carlos Beltran.
Manager contributions to a team's success are pretty tough to measure, and it's an area of team evaluation for which subjective observation may actually be more important (or as important) than objective analysis. You watch Tony La Russa every day; what's your take on the Cardinals' manager?
This is a sore spot for a lot of Cardinals fans, because for all his talents—and I really do think he's an all-time great—he's made some bizarre field-manager decisions this year that are both less defensible than his greatest hits (batting the pitcher eighth, playing the platoon match-up as often as possible) and more irritating.
The worst tic so far has been carrying thirteen pitchers for most of the year, to no apparent tactical benefit. The thirteenth pitcher is a long reliever who is rarely used even when the game is out of hand—yesterday the Cardinals hung 12 runs on the Royals early and Blake Hawksworth, the current specimen, still only got one inning. In the meantime the pitchers the depth is supposed to protect from overexposure—Jason Motte, a converted catcher, and his one pitch, etc.—still pitch too often.
The lack of follow-through on his current mad-scientist trick is uncharacteristic of Tony; normally when he has a plan, like moving Skip Schumaker to second or Khalil Greene to third, he is serious about it, but for large swaths of the season it's like he hasn't remembered he's got the extra pitcher. The result has been a seriously stretched bench, and lots of pitchers pinch-hitting, for no obvious gain.
I love La Russa, though, and I think that when they aren't watching him on a day-to-day basis most Cardinals fans do, too. He's an idiosyncratic field manager, but every year he's hit with injuries and inefficiencies, and every year the Cardinals seem to succeed within them.